At a party a few years ago, I heard a guy say, “I was driving on Fennel Street in the middle of the winter and went to turn onto Queen Street. Then I hit some black guys and my car flipped over the barrier and crashed into a tree. I wasn’t hurt, but the car was totalled.”
After a beat, I asked, “But what happened to the black guys?”
He laughed. “You idiot. I said black ice, not black guys.”
I said, “Good. I thought you sounded a bit insensitive, even racist,” then I laughed too. I’d only pretended to misunderstand him. I’m partially of African descent, born and raised in sub-Arctic Canada.
People who’ve always lived in places that are always warm — like Tsedaniya in Kenya, who blogs at http://pinkhousediaries.wordpress.com/ — may not understand the existential complexities of living in a place regularly covered with thick sheets of frozen water.
Let me try to explain. Snow is what normally falls out of the sky in winter. Snow is cold but soft and fluffy. If you fall on snow, it’s no big deal. Throwing snowballs at a friend is fun, safe and good exercise.
However, if the temperature goes above zero degrees, the snow starts to melt and turns into water. The water soaks in the snow beneath, making a chilly slush (sort of like a 7-11 Slurpee, minus the sweeteners and fluorescent dye.)
When the temperature drops back under zero again — as our sadistic weather so likes doing — that watery slush freezes into solid ice, up to a meter (36″) thick. For months, we get from place to place across jagged ice-ridges and slippery ice-sheets covering all Hamilton, all Ontario, all Canada (except Vancouver).
Ice is granite-hard and very, very non-fluffy. If you fall on ice, it’s no surprise if you break a leg or a hip or a cellphone or die. Throwing ice at a friend is assault and you’ll serve prison time for it!
There was a recent graphic on Reddit titled, “Avoid slipping on ice by walking like a penguin!” It shows some poor guy wearing a scarf and a toque and just walking along somewhere, minding his own business, then he falls. When he hits the ice below, the graphic — which seems a bit unrealistic at this point — shows what appears to be an explosion under the guy’s butt. Really. Look, I’ve seen hundreds of people fall on ice over the years — and I laughed at almost every one of them — but I’ve never seen such an explosion. Unless you’re carrying a bottle of nitroglycerin in your back pocket, that just doesn’t happen.
Anyway, the graphic explained that the safest way to walk on ice was to “keep your center of gravity over your front leg,” along with a picture of a penguin. Okay. My safety role model is now a flightless Antarctic bird, prey to leopard seals and giant squids. Great. The penguin in the graphic looks a bit smug and I suspect that it was a penguin or a group of penguins who designed the graphic and posted it on Reddit. You penguins are a bunch of conceited show offs!
Getting back to the subject of ice, the law says that you have to remove any snow and/or ice from your front step, a path up your driveway and the sidewalk in front of your property within 36 hours or something. Some of us try to comply, attacking it with shovels and chemicals, but with every melt and every re-freeze the ice keeps coming back, like a horror-movie villain.
There are a lot of different chemicals that melt ice. The most popular one around here is salt, the same yummy chemical we sprinkle on our french fries and raw seal hearts and fajitas. Road salt is sold in bigger, filthier chunks than table salt. You’re supposed to sprinkle it over a sheet of ice and then wait a bit. In a few minutes, each piece of salt melts a hole down into the ice. These holes weaken the ice, making it easier to hack pieces off the glacier on your sidewalk.
The problem with ice-removal salt is its toxicity. According to environmental experts, when road salt enters local streams, it may cause important species of fish to develop high blood-pressure and a thirst for another cold beer. Seriously, I don’t remember exactly what bad things salt does to fish, but I’m pretty sure that the fish’s doctor wants the fish to cut back.
There are chemical salt-alternatives on the market that are quite nice at melting ice, but they are more expensive and, when sprinkled on scrambled eggs and homefries, taste odd.
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PS: I want to end this post with something poetic for Tsedaniya and other warm-land dwellers, something that expresses how most Canadians feel about winter. Bette Midler sang:
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the spring becomes the rose.